The early involvement of the Contractor in the design process of construction projects has shown to provide benefits for Principals. What is noticed in this area is that there are well used models but also possible opportunity for much earlier Contractor involvement on appropriate projects.

The design and construct contract is well understood and has been the traditional solution for Principals requiring the Contractor to develop, complete and be responsible for the design process as well as construction. The preliminary design prepared by the Principal’s designers becomes the Contractor’s responsibility and the designers who prepared the preliminary design are novated to the Contractor.

Although design and construct contracts may contain a value management process and build-ability obligations, there will be limits to the types of decisions made during the preliminary design process that can be later ‘undone’ (for instance, the resultant delay in re-documenting the project may outweigh the saving or may not be able to be accommodated by the program). Therefore, the opportunity to align ‘market’ construction experience with project expectations and have positive impacts at that early stage may have been lost.

In determining when to involve the Contractor in the design process, a Principal will normally decide when design control can be handed over to a Contractor and from when it would like the Contractor to take design, build-ability, time and price risk. Each project will be different but earlier Contractor involvement in the design process can facilitate collaboration and innovation on the project, such as the ability to develop and test material or assemble prototypes before committing to construction.

Contractors’ involvement in the preliminary design process has so far been uncommon in Australia (particularly on traditional building projects) but it seems it is the ‘final frontier’ of their involvement in this process. Whether the Contractor would take any price or design process risk in their participation in the preliminary design process would be separately answered by the agreement reached on the procurement terms.

Early Contractor Involvement (ECI) contracts are a recent procurement model that has become one possible solution to involving Contractors in the preliminary design process. They usually involve a two stage process. In the first stage, the Contractor is engaged (usually on a time basis) to prepare the preliminary design with the Principal, using the Contractor’s designers. The second stage is essentially a design and construct model but the Principal is not obliged to engage the Contractor and can competitively tender the works to another Contractor.

If Principals have trepidation in giving the design process control to Contractors or the project is not suitable for relinquishing preliminary design control, the ECI model could alternatively be split with the first stage involving the engagement of a Contractor under a consultancy agreement to provide construction advice on the design process being undertaken by the Principal’s designers. This may give Principals an easy inroad into using Contractors more often in the preliminary design phase without the need to hand over design process control or to negotiate and agree the entire construction contract at such an early stage of the project. A design and construct contract could then be used after the preliminary design has been prepared. Given that the ECI model has so far mostly been used on projects involving unidentified risks, this ‘construction consultancy’ alternative may suit a broader range of projects.

On appropriate projects in the future, we may more often see Principals considering the earlier involvement of Contractors in the preliminary design process.